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Holes in Asiatic Society defence

New Delhi, Dec. 20: The news that Calcutta’s Asiatic Society had disposed of priceless old documents today outraged scholars although the institution claimed these were extra copies.

Historian Narayani Gupta said that even if the society had 10 copies of any publication, it should have retained all of them.

“These should certainly, certainly, not have been sold. Yellowing documents are even more precious,” she said.

“The extra copies should have been given to a library like the Indira Gandhi National Library. They are very valuable. Having extra copies is not the point.”

The Telegraph had reported today that the Society gave away journals and manuscripts free or at throwaway prices because of lack of space and an aversion to ageing paper.

The institution’s general secretary, Ramakanta Chakrabarty, who is in Delhi to attend a meeting, today said the documents were sold at a concession. “Only unusable copies were sold,” he said. “These were sold at concessional rates at, say, 40 per cent rebate.”

But scholars familiar with ancient documents said the prices marked on the journals — some dating back to the 19th century — were usually between Rs 2 and Rs 10. The 1906 and 1915 issues of the Journal of the Asiatic Society were not priced at all.

“So, how can they claim they (the journals) were sold at a rebate?” a senior Asiatic Society member asked. The journals have not been valued at current market prices.

“Cambridge (in Harvard) sold some of their journals after they went online,” said Nayanjyot Lahiri, a professor with Delhi University. “But these were disposed of at high prices. They should never have been sold at the price of raddi (scrap).”

She added: “The documents should have been offered to a library instead.”

Chakrabarty claimed the society had offered the books to “many libraries” but couldn’t name a single one.

He said a five-member committee was set up to “assess” the documents to be sold. However, he could not name any of its members. “I don’t remember,” he said.

“These were books, not journals,” he said. The Telegraph has pictures of an 1874 issue of the Journal of the Asiatic Society that a member said was given away free.

Chakrabarty conceded that “maybe” a few journals were sold off, too. “I wasn’t at the spot.”

Narayani Gupta said: “In Cambridge, there is a section in the library called ‘dead books’. Old books are kept there and the light keeps going off after 20 minutes so that the documents are not damaged. These documents should have been kept like that.”

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